Not long ago I chastised Paul Muldoon for his bad translation of one Aimé Césaire poem in the New Yorker. In connection to that post, old friend Paul Buck in England send me a e-piece (that only reached me today in its printed version) that takes a more serious mistranslation to task — & does so in great depth while giving a needed historical introduction to the book and its earlier translation. I could only wish that translations would more often get this kind of detailed treatment — the bad ones (of which there are more than enough, unhappily) but the good ones as well. So I suggest that readers interested in matters of translation & even those simply interested in foreign literatures (as this article will tell them how publishers easily foist obviously incompetent translations on unwary readers) have a look at Tori Moi’s “The Adultreress Wife,” in the current issue of the London Review of Books. It is a scathing commentary on the new translation of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier — here, a few paragraphs to whet your appetite:
The book is marred by unidiomatic or unintelligible phrases and clueless syntax; by expressions such as ‘the forger being’, ‘man’s work equal’, ‘the adulteress wife’, and ‘leisure in château life’; and formulations such as ‘because since woman is certainly to a large extent man’s invention’, ‘a condition unique to France is that of the unmarried woman’, ‘alone she does not succeed in separating herself in reality’, ‘this uncoupling can occur in a maternal form.’ The translation is blighted by the constant use of ‘false friends’, words that sound the same but don’t mean the same in the two languages.
And then there are the howlers. A character in Balzac’s Letters of Two Brides is made to kill her husband ‘in a fit of passion’, when what she really does is kill him ‘par l’excès de sa passion’ (‘by her excessive passion’). In the chapter on ‘The Married Woman’, Beauvoir quotes the famous line from Balzac’s Physiologie du mariage: ‘Ne commencez jamais le mariage par un viol’ (‘Never begin marriage by a rape’). Borde and Malovany-Chevallier write: ‘Do not begin marriage by a violation of law.’
At one point, Beauvoir discusses Hegel’s analysis of sex. In the new translation, a brief quotation from The Philosophy of Nature ends with the puzzling claim: ‘This is mates coupling.’ Mates coupling? What does Hegel mean? It turns out that in Beauvoir’s French version, Hegel says, ‘C’est l’accouplement’; A.V. Miller’s translation of The Philosophy of Nature uses the obvious term, ‘copulation’.
In a discussion of male sexuality, Beauvoir points out that men can get pleasure from just about any woman. As evidence she mentions ‘la prospérité de certaines “maisons d’abattage”’, which Borde and Malovany-Chevallier translate as ‘the success of certain “slaughter-houses”’. But for a prostitute, faire de l’abattage is to get through customers quickly; as the context makes abundantly clear, a maison d’abattage is not an abattoir, but a brothel specialising in a quick turnover.